Prison Characters Drawn from Life (1866)

Prison Characters - Spreadbridge

‘Prison Characters drawn from life’ is the second volume in a 2 part book collection, written as a first-hand account as to the condition experienced by women within the prison system during the mid-nineteenth century. It was written through the perspective of a ‘Prison Matron’ whose identity is unknown and was published in London in 1866.

The date in which this source was written is particularly significant, in that it collides with a period of debate over prison reform. This concept is referenced specifically by the author within the first chapter, where she expresses her surprise at the popularity of her first volume; ‘I did not look for a large public, or anticipate…a host of friends and well-wishers’. The fact that there was an audience outside of the ‘specialists’ mentioned as her intended audience, suggests ideas surrounding prison reform had been growing in popularity within society more broadly within this period. From the early nineteenth century, the British government was growing increasingly worried about the rising crime rate, with offences rising from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 in 1840. In addition to this rise in criminal activity, there had been growing doubts about the morality of transportation throughout the 1930s and debates over the severity of punishment; especially for petty crimes. This combination led to rising numbers of criminals being kept in British prisons which many were unable to accommodate. In this sense, the source is useful to the historian not only in highlighting the issue of inadequate prison accommodation, but also when this issue reached its apex in representing when this issue became popular in its consumption by the public.

Furthermore, this source is useful in understanding the Victorian society at a broader level, looking at the living conditions not only within the prisons themselves, but throughout London as a whole. This can be understood through the concept that there was a rapidly increasing number of women who were entering the prison system, as this was the author’s intent that reform was needed to accommodate inmates. This dramatically rising level of prison convictions therefore suggests life for the common woman outside of prison was more difficult than inside. Thus, this suggests for many attempting crime was increasingly worth the risk of conviction. The food provided within the prison system, even before reforms, was often seen as better than that received in inns, with the general inmate population being healthier than the general public. Thus it seemed more advantageous to commit a crime and thereby be convicted to prison, where one could obtain better food, baths, and good warm lodging, than if they were struggling on the streets of London. In this sense, the source is particularly useful in highlighting the broader concerns of everyday living conditions within society as a whole.

Despite advantages of the source, its limitations must be taken into account. Whilst knowledge can be gained as to prison conditions, it must be remembered it was written based on the London context and thus should not be taken as truth as to the circumstances in all prisons across Britain. Furthermore, whilst it is known the author of these works did work within the prisons and thus would have an in-depth knowledge as to its workings and issues, their identity still remains unknown. Therefore, it is uncertain whether they had any agenda for writing these volumes. Whilst it was written with the intent to advise the government, it is unknown whether this was by commission or personal reasons. Yet despite this, the source does remain useful in providing a localised understanding of social and economic conditions of women at the bottom of society within nineteenth century.

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Written by Amy Spreadbridge

Prison Characters Drawn from Life (1866)